To Improve Your Firm, Look in the Mirror


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

I attended a managing partner roundtable recently. In the course of the discussion I asked how many had ever used 360 degree feedback in their law firm. A couple of hands went up. One brave soul said, “What is 360 degree feedback?” Several nodded their heads or murmured that they were wondering that, too.

What Is 360 Degree Feedback?

360 degree feedback is a skills development tool which involves surveying the people above, below and around you to get their perceptions about your behavior and the impact of your behavior. The process may also be called multi-rater assessment, multi-source feedback or full circle appraisal.

It usually involves the supervising attorneys, practice group leader, and team or project leader, as well as colleagues, partners or peers within the firm who work with you or otherwise have ample opportunity to observe your behavior and your work product. The associates and staff who report to you or otherwise work with you also rate your behaviors and competencies, and feedback from clients might also be sought. The process usually seeks feedback on a confidential, anonymous basis.

The Purpose of Feedback

Several of you may be feeling a chill run down your spine just reading about this. You may be thinking, “Ask my clients what they think of me? Give associates a chance to mouth off about me? Set myself up for potshots from my partners? Let my staff give me a performance review? Are you crazy?” Most of us, however, secretly wish to know how others see us. This is a development tool that will help you become more proficient at the behaviors that lead to the results you want. Stated another way, this process can help you learn how to get out of your own way, while providing encouragement to continue doing what really works.

The corporate world has been using 360 degree feedback for decades. Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric Company, was quoted as saying, “Any company that’s going to make it …has got to find a way to engage the mind of every single employee. If you’re not thinking all the time about making every person more valuable, you don’t have a chance. What’s the alternative? Wasted minds? Uninvolved people? A labor force that’s angry or bored? That doesn’t make sense.” Making any lawyer or staff member more valuable requires feedback to them. Giving them the opportunity to provide feedback to others (especially upwards) helps to keep the workforce engaged.

Research on the Critical Role of Managers

Many law firms now suffer from costly attrition among their young attorneys and staff, as well as partners. “People leave managers, not companies,” say Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, authors of First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Their conclusion is based on research studies conducted by the Gallup Organization involving over a million employees and eighty thousand managers in a broad range of industries. “How long that employee stays and how productive he is while he is there is determined by his relationship with his immediate supervisor,” assert Buckingham and Coffman. They discovered that managers, not pay, benefits or perks, are the critical factor in building a strong workplace.

If you give work assignments to anyone, you are a manager to that person. Are you willing to consider the possibility that you may be contributing to the problems your law firm experiences? Are you getting the results you want, including the retention of talented lawyers and staff? If not, how can you make the right shifts, if you are unclear about the impact of your current choices and behaviors? Candid feedback can provide the guidance you need.

Benefits to the Law Firm

The firm as a whole will benefit from a properly conducted 360 degree feedback program. Some of the benefits reported include:
1. provides individuals a broader perspective on how they are perceived by others and how they positively and negatively impact others
2. reinforces the desired competencies in the law firm
3. increases awareness by senior management that they also have areas for development and improvement
4. identifies key development areas for individuals, practice groups, support arenas and the firm as a whole
5. multiple raters enhance the recipient’s perception that feedback is valid and objective, leading to more willingness to accept and act upon the feedback
6. fosters a climate of continual improvement in management and other skills
7. identifies strengths in individuals for optimal benefit to the firm
8. highlights the responsibility of an individual for his/her own career development
9. reveals training needs in the organization
10. may reduce discrimination risk by getting feedback from multiple raters in varied job functions

Ultimately, the long term benefits of feedback from multiple sources can be increased productivity, improved talent retention, reduced conflict, more effective management, and progress towards the law firm’s larger goals. The success of the feedback program depends on what the firm and the recipients do with that feedback, however. If poorly implemented, a feedback program can produce negative results.

In a future article we’ll go into more detail about what a 360 degree feedback program looks like, and discuss tips on implementing such a program. In the meantime, you can still employ the old-fashioned way. Consider asking those around you, including peers, direct reports and supervisors, questions like “What suggestions do you have for me?” and “How can I help you be your most effective?”

© Debra Bruce 2008

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